“Every nation gets the government it deserves.” Ironically, the man who said this, Joseph de Maistre, was part of the ‘counter-enlightenment’ period just after the French Revolution — a contentious period not unlike what we’re currently experiencing in the United States. De Maistre was disdainful of the type of government a democracy would yield. The question for America citizens, ever more pressing in these divisive times: Are we getting what we deserve?
The left may argue — ‘What did we do wrong to deserve Donald Trump?’ While the right argues – ‘What did we do to deserve Barack Obama?’ Historically, did we deserve our great presidents, or, likewise, the bad ones, those that were incompetent, ignorant or mean-spirited?
Would we have defeated the Nazi/Fascist movement of the mid-twentieth century without the extended leadership of FDR? Would we still be a whole nation without Abraham Lincoln?
It seems that sometimes we do choose the leaders we need. But, it also seems that we only make good choices after making bad ones. Franklin Roosevelt’s first landslide victory was, in part, a reaction to the disastrous policies of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover whose response to The Great Depression was to refuse relief for the newly destitute and blame Mexican-Americans for massive unemployment.
The same was true of Lincoln’s three predecessors. Millard Fillmore, a ‘thumb-twaddler and a ‘No Nothing’ was followed by Franklin Pierce, whom historians rank as one of the least effective presidents ever. Pierce set the stage for the Civil War and by the end of his successor James Buchanan’s term, the south had seceded. With an astonishing 82% voter turnout, Lincoln won – in part because of his thoughtful, down-to-earth oratory and, in part, because the opposition votes were split between three other major candidates (Southern Democrats, Northern Democrats and the Union Party).
It’s also unlikely that Barack Obama would have been elected without the eight-year tenure of George W. Bush, which resulted in two wars and ended with the Great Recession Obama won by a sizeable 53%-to-45% margin and in recent a Pew Survey, when asked who they thought was the greatest president of their lifetime, Obama was, by far, the most popular choice. So, how did Trump succeed him?
Obama himself has speculated on that topic. As the New York Times reported earlier this year:
What if we were wrong?” he once asked his aides.
He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind.
“Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
“Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.
Although he seemed as shocked as rest of us when Trump got elected, Obama’s earlier insight does seem prophetic. Trump rallied voters who had not been to the polls in decades, people who distrusted everyone in Washington and were tired of speeches framed in ‘political correctness’, believed this blunt, outspoken candidate when he promised to “drain the swamp.”
As for the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency. Though we might, and should, continue to investigate Russian influence – and prosecute those responsible — we need to remember that it was ‘influence’, not spies in the polling booths pulling the levers. Since there’s no evidence of anyone tampering with election results, we must accept the fact that enough Americans voted for Trump to legitimately make him our president, for now. (If he colluded with his Russian comrades, that’s another matter.)
‘The majority of us did not vote for Trump,’ we might argue. True. But, enough did. Enough to allow the Electoral College to confirm him. And enough have supported the hundreds of other elected officials who back Trump policies and impede sanctions of his questionable – and seemingly unconstitutional – actions. Add to that cabinet members and agency heads, all approved by Congress. We didn’t just get the president we deserve, we got, as I said, the government we deserve.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
If the recent Gallup Polls are correct, we can expect 39% of the American people – those who still support Trump – to vote again this November for Congressional members who will back him and back his M.A.G.A., shoot-from-the-hip policies.
Still, it’s called ‘The Trump Administration’. So, we are right to place the majority of the blame for the policies we disdain squarely on the head of our current POTUS. Just as those that disliked Obama’s progressive globalism can fairly blame Obama. Which then pivots to questions of how and why we gave so much power to the President.
Blame it on George Washington.
Because Washington was so immensely popular – receiving 100% of the electoral vote both terms – the framers of the Constitution were not overly concerned about defining the rules of his presidency. Washington was allowed to define his office. Some would have made him president-for-life or even king (Hamilton). They were right to trust him. He conducted himself with decorum and humility. He deferred to Congress for new legislation. And his first executive order was a request, not a demand.
In 1789 he wrote duplicate letters asking the heads of various federal departments “to impress me with a full, precise, and distinct general idea of the affairs of the United States.” He sought advice on taxation, on foreign and economic policy. John Adams was his Vice President, Jefferson his Secretary of State and Hamilton his Treasury Secretary. Their mutual respect helped define his role as well as his title.
His Exalted Highness, His Elective Highness, Most Illustrious and Excellent President, His Majesty the President – all these titles were championed by members of the Senate. Washington was relieved when they settled on the simple, ‘Mr. President.’
Just as the Constitution provided no clearly defined title for the president, it did not define the powers of the office beyond Commander in Chief (Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution). Some scholars believe the Commander in Chief clause confers expansive powers on the President, but others argue that even if that is the case, the Constitution does not define precisely the extent of those powers. Which brings us to the president’s use of ‘executive orders.’
According to the Congressional Research Service, ”There is no direct definition of executive orders, presidential memoranda, and proclamations in the U.S. Constitution, there is, likewise, no specific provision authorizing their issuance.”
Yet, one executive order alone can change the course of our environmental policies, can do an about-face on foreign policy, can reverse healthcare legislation, impose new tariffs, dramatically change immigration laws or annul U.S. treaties. Trump’s executive orders have done all this, but not without precedence. Regardless of how we judge them, U.S. Presidents have a long history of using executive orders to make sweeping policy changes:
- Lincoln freed the slaves with an executive order that followed The Emancipation Proclamation.
- President Franklin Roosevelt established internment camps during World War II using Executive Order 9066.
- Jimmy Carter’s executive orders gave amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers.
- In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower used an executive order to put the Arkansas National Guard under federal control and to enforce desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas.
- Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces with an executive order.
- However, Truman also saw one of his key executive orders invalidated by the Supreme Court in 1952, in a watershed moment for the Court that saw it define presidential powers in relation to Congress.
When Truman issued an executive order to prevent a labor union strike, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it. In doing so the court provided new guidelines for presidential power. Writing in favor of the decision, Justice Robert Jackson established three points by which to evaluate the validity of executive orders:
- Cases in which the President was acting with express or implied authority from Congress
- Cases in which Congress had thus far been silent, referred to as a ‘zone of twilight’
- Cases in which the President was defying congressional orders.
The Supreme Court has also weighed in on Trump’s executive orders. Likewise, Congress has responded legislatively to Trump’s agenda. We may vigorously disagree with the results of both but we cannot truly make a claim that our system of government has failed to function. Regardless of public protest, SCOTUS upheld Trump’s Muslim ban. Regardless of their limited results, Congress has tried to undo ‘Obamacare.’ Both bodies of government have been functioning the way they were intended to function in relationship to the power and initiative of the executive branch.
What progressives are struggling with most is not Trump operating outside of the rules of government. It’s more about his questionable character and his motives. Many seasoned political pundits are making a strong case for him being unfit for office, based on his character. And there may be a solid case against him for violating the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 8) that prohibits federal officeholders from benefiting financially as a direct result of the power of their office.
But, again, there were solid cases against Andrew Jackson for setting-up a ‘spoils system’ for key government jobs, against Hoover for protecting his huge mining interests while in office, against Washington, the second richest president, for profiting from his vast farming interests and against Jefferson for defending slavery, upon which the profitability of his 5,000 acre plantation depended.
So, when our government is working more or less the way it was intended to work, but we’re deeply dissatisfied with the results, it’s time to question the original design. Perhaps we are simply suffering from the sins of our forefathers.
It’s my contention that we’ve got the government we deserve because we have not attempted to alter the flaws in its foundation, flaws resulting from the very nature of those who wrote the Constitution.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams were all educated in the classics, including philosophy. They were well-read, steeped in the writings of social philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacque Rousseau and John Locke. They knew that the opportunity to write the U.S. Constitution was an opportunity to initiate a new type of ‘social contract’ – which is:
An agreement reached by a group of people to establish a system of justice [government] whereby all agree to abide by certain laws, giving up certain freedoms, in exchange for the mutual benefit that is derived.
They were right and, in many ways they were brilliant, but their concept of this new social contract had one huge flaw. In order to establish a system of justice, of government, that will be mutually beneficial, every member of that social group must have equal representation at the table. The white, wealthy, well-educated men who wrote the Constitution, were a very exclusive club. Women, as well as other races and even men who were poor or uneducated, had absolutely no say in this new social contract.
Even if we forgive their biases as representative of their time period, how can we forgive their exclusion of more progressive minds, like that of Thomas Paine. Paine’s Common Sense, the single most popular book in America in the late 1700s, fueled the spirit of the American Revolution, and inspired the language of the Declaration of Independence. But, when it came time to form a new government, our elitist forefather’s ignored him.
While Jefferson and Madison were writing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Paine was penning ‘The Rights of Man’ – in which he wrote:
All individuals are born with equal natural rights — men, women, white, black, rich, poor, young, old.
Even though they established a revolutionary form of government – envisioning a radically new social contract – the framers and the ratifiers of the U.S. Constitution were not revolutionary enough. Had they included Paine’s ideas, women would have had the right to vote in 1787 instead of 1920. Slavery would have never been legal in the United States, Native American’s respect for nature would have guided the nation’s development and the powers of U.S. Presidency would have been limited and well-defined, not left to the examples set by George Washington.
Although our nation was born from a flawed inception, we have made great strides in making it right. But, we can only continue to do so by continuing to confront the flaws, by bringing all citizens to the table, by giving even the most disadvantaged among us a voice.
But, the only way forward is forward. Attempts to recreate some version of an imagined America of the past is simply regressive. We need progressive presidents, a foreward-thinking Congress, an enlightened Supreme Court and – more than anything – an involved citizenry. One certainty: those who do not vote definitely deserve the government they get.
“People have a tendency to blame politicians when things don’t work, but as I always tell people, you get the politicians you deserve. And if you don’t vote and you don’t pay attention, you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interest.” – Barack Obama.